Mariam Yahia, a mother in her 20s is currently facing apostasy and adultery charges under Sudan’s Criminal Law of 1991. Yahia is accused of leaving Islam and converting to Christianity in a complaint brought against her by a family claiming to be her direct family. Mariam’s story unleashed a war in Sudan where one side views itself as guarding Islam from the other side, the infidels. Although the war could be viewed as a religious one, it is in fact political, Maryam by staying firm on her position to remain a Christian put the entire Islamist project in jeopardy, a young woman has stood against a patriarchal judiciary system that has its laws tailored specifically to punish women and a political system that doesn’t accept religious diversity.
On Thursday 15th of May, I sat in a cramped court house at Al-Haj Yousif Court Complex in Khartoum North, the court house had more people standing than sitting and dozens were standing in front of the court house, knocking its wooden door every few seconds only to be told that they can not be allowed in. Mariam Yahia was locked inside the defendant’s cage with a bearded sheikh who represented the Sudan Scholars Council.
We waited for at least half an hour only for the bearded sheikh to step outside the cage and sit next to the judge.
The judge asked Mariam what her decision is, in other words, if she decided to return to Islam. She said just one sentence, “I am Christian and I am not an apostate,”
The courthouse was silent then astonished. Some let out screams they tried to suppress with their palms, others cried, tears of worry for Mariam.
I was absolutely surprised, just days before, Mariam’s lawyers and husband spoke about the pressure she is facing in jail, by the prison guards and the women imprisoned with her and by the state and the entire judiciary system. Just two days before the Sunday session where she was sentenced to execution and 100 lashes under Article 126, Apostasy, and Article 146, Adultery, Mariam received an unwelcome state visitor in prison telling her that she needs to recount her christian faith and return to Islam to escape execution. She was told that an appeal could take years and she could be stuck in jail for four years before she would be free.
In that context, as a mother of a boy under 2 years old and the future mother of a girl that she will give birth to in the coming weeks, it would have made a lot of sense for Mariam to recount her faith and choose the easy way out.
However, there is no easy way out for Mariam.
Mariam’s story began with the judiciary system in September 2013. On the 14th of September 2013, a man who claims to be her brother filed a complaint that he saw his missing sister with a South Sudanese man. She was arrested along with her husband the next day , the police said that they were able to track her using her cellphone number after arresting her husband’s cousin by mistake. Mariam was in and out of jail based on adultery charges as her family claimed that she is Muslim by birth and she can not have married this Christian man, Dr. David Wani, and because they have a child together, this is Zina or adultery as based on Article 146 of the Criminal Law. In mid-January 2014, Omdurman Women’s Prison became Mariam’s full-time home with her now 20 months old son, Martin. Around that time, her defense team said is when the apostasy charges were added as based on Article 146 of the Criminal Law.
Mariam said that her mother is Ethiopian and her father is a Sudanese Muslim and she was raised as a Christian following her mother’s religion. She lived in Gedarif before moving to Khartoum sometime in 2005 , she married Dr.Wani in late 2011. At the time her family, which represents the complainer in this case, claimed that she disappeared after Ramadan 2012, Mariam was married and pregnant with her first child, Martin, at the time. Both Mariam’s story and her alleged family’s story have serious gaps, , but I will look beyond the personal, at a case that is more politically and socially complex , than a family problem.
Before Mariam’s story, the Sudanese public have not heard of of a person sentenced for apostasy since 1985, when the Republican party’s spiritual leader, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, was sentenced in public for apostasy, just a mere months before the March-April revolution. After the revolution, Taha’s daughter who is a lawyer worked with a team of defense lawyers, and took this case to the constitutional court which deemed the case and his sentencing unconstitutional. This did not stop the judge from referring to the case of Taha on the Sunday where he sentenced Mariam to death by execution as a case of apostasy.
In April 2014, before Mariam, there was Faiza Abdullah. A simple mother of 8 who converted to Christianity to marry her husband who is Christian and works at the church. Abdullah found herself in a dilemma when she went to get a National ID number, the officer saw her name and asked her “what is your religion?”. When she said she is Christian, he automatically wore the hat of a complainer and took her to court. During her trial, her father said that he is Muslim and she was Muslim growing up, but she converted to Christianity. The father had no objections to the fact that his daughter left Islam. Last week, a man in his 40s was arrested in a mosque in Southern Khartoum because he distributed pamphlets promoting Christianity. When I followed the news, I was told that his lawyer pleaded that he is mentally unstable and he was sentenced to a psychiatric ward. A lawyer friend told me that the lawyer could have used this approach to save his client from the ordeal of Mariam.
It seems very bizarre that a man who distributes pamphlets promoting Christianity in a mosque three weeks in a row is “mentally unstable”, he seems very certain about what he wants to do.
The People Who Held Signs
Outside Mariam’s court house, civil society activists began gathering and stood on the stairs leading to the court, some armed with posters that read slogans like “the death penalty is inhumane| and “the right of religion is a constitutional right” and others armed with their loud dissenting voices. What followed was an ideological battle between those activists who largely represent the moderate religious voices such as the Republicans and those who are affiliated with the Sudanese left and the bearded sheikhs and young men who are against everything those activists stand for. Because in reality, it is a greater gain for the the Sudan Scholars Council to pressure Maryam into Islam than to have her sentenced to death. It is a gain for Islam in Sudan and a gain against the Sudanese left which is viewed as a threat to the entire Islamist project.
The court was a battlefield between those two parties, it was a moral and political battle. Moral because the religious zealots view civil society activists as morally inferior and anti-religion and are in a constant struggle against religious values which they believe are inherently Sudanese. Political because what Amel Habbani, a Sudanese journalist, said in front of the court house, summarized the political debate between both sides. “You want to execute Maryam, but you don’t want to even try those corrupt murderers in power,” she argued, only to be told to cover her hair. She screamed, “no to women’s oppression”. In fact, Maryam’s case is another testament that the political is always fought over women’s bodies.
In the case of Maryam and Faiza, the state acted as the patriarch , showing complete contempt and lack of acceptance for his daughters’ decisions. Faiza was divorced from her husband by the patriarch while Maryam is continuing to be painted as a girl who was “bewitched” by forces only known to the Sudan Scholars Council. If she continues to refuse to succumb to the decision imposed upon her by the state, she will be lashed 100 times and executed. If she recounts Christianity, she will still be lashed and will also be divorced from a husband.
The Gap Within
In the days before that hot Thursday afternoon, Sudanese activists began a social media campaign, in the form of a hashtag and a Facebook page, respectively. The purpose was to gather support for Maryam’s case and invite people to attend her trial. The solidarity campaign caused serious issues to resurface, those issues are usually much easier to bury when we are discussing a social problem or a political issue such as the regime’s use of excess force against civilians in war zones or even political detentions. But when you discuss religion, you automatically find yourself walking in a landmine, between the total seculars, the bearded seculars and those in between.
The debate ensued, between trying to tell Maryam’s story to the people in her own words without the gaps, that she is Christian based on her mother’s religion and by this, you gain a large number of followers who will support Mariam merely because they will blame her father who abandoned her as a child to be brought up by her Christian mother. It becomes tricky and you could attract the kind of followers, who stand against Maryam’s apostasy sentence, but still believe that as a Muslim, you can not leave your faith. In other words, the solidarity campaign stops at supporting Maryam’s right to practice Christianity, but does not uphold the constitutional right to “Freedom of religion”.
Moreover, a main argument used by the solidarity campaign which includes journalists, activists and even scholars is to question the Huddud in Islam, with many arguing that death for apostasy is not even Islamic. Those who defend Mariam’s right to life because Islam does not have the death penalty for apostasy are usually silent on her second sentence, Article 146.
Others who argue that death for apostasy is in Islam ignore that this sentence is against Sudan’s Interim constitution which should, in practice, reflect an Islamic constitution since Sudan has been ruled by Islamists since 1989.
A few weeks ago, I posted a news piece on Twitter stating that ” a university girl was lashed for getting pregnant by her fiancee”. I asked where is the fiancee in this lashing and reiterated that I am against lashing. I then received many comments supporting that the fiancee also had to be lashed because this is Zina based on the Islamic law. The readers simply missed my point, I only asked where the fiancee is in the lashing because in most Zina cases in Sudan , the woman is the one getting lashed. If the fiancee was asked and he denied, orally, that this is his baby, he will not be lashed, but she will under all circumstances. This does not change my stance that both sides should not be lashed, however, my question was a jab at the judiciary system which is supported by a patriarchal socio-political system which incriminates women even in their private lives.
Finally, Mariam’s case stands as a real challenge for civil society activists in her solidarity campaign, at the end of the day, if they want to challenge the Apostasy law in Sudan, international pressure and advocacy alone is not enough. National pressure and advocacy is much needed and by the high number of “likes” on the Facebook Page , many inside Sudan are interested in Maryam’s case, but how to sell Mariam’s case as a human rights issue, as a “Freedom of Religion” issue will be a dilemma. If we want to uphold Mariam’s story in her own words, we still have to convince people that even though she says that she is Christian due to her mother’s influence, she has the constitutional right to be part of any religion she wishes. However, if we uphold the other side’s story, that she is their runaway daughter who left Islam, then the solidarity campaign will face the challenge of standing up to zealots who act as guardians to the Islamic state in Sudan.
Cross-posted at — http://www.cmi.no/news/?1394-mariam-yahias-story